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Stats: China’s 2023 PE imports snap two-year downfall despite rapidly growing domestic capacities

by Elif Sevde Yalçın - eyalcin@chemorbis.com
by Esra Ersöz - eersoz@chemorbis.com
  • 19/02/2024 (11:51)
China’s yearly PE imports posted a marginal increase of 1% despite more than 5 million tons of domestic production capacity added throughout 2023. This minimal increase is still eye-catching as there was a significant yearly decrease of 20% in 2021 and 7% in 2022. In the meantime, all prevailing import suppliers lost market share except for the US, which ramped up sales to China by more than double.

Why did not China’s imports fall in 2023, contrary to expectations?

The increase in 2023 imports – albeit a tiny one – snapped the two-year downfall in China’s PE imports to stand at 14.3 million tons, while exports hit an all-time high with a yearly jump of 16% to 847,000 tons, which is still way smaller than imports.

Although China has been adding a considerable amount of PE capacities since 2020, excess supply has been avoided by widespread production cutbacks, and partly higher exports. According to ChemOrbis Production News Pro, China cut more supplies than it added throughout last year to counterbalance weaker demand amid the faltering economic growth. This might be the reason why overall imports did not shrink like in the previous two years.

On top of that, all major suppliers, with the exception of the USA, suffered market share losses in China’s import PE market. Imports from the US have more than doubled to around 2.6 million tons. In this respect, one can even argue that if it hadn’t been for the competitive power of the US, PE imports of China might not have posted this slight gain.

Import – Export- China – PE

How did the USA dethrone Saudi Arabia?

The United States of America became the top PE supplier of China in 2023 with around 2.6 million tons, holding an 18% market share in the overall import PE market. In 2022, the US was not even among the top five suppliers while 2023 saw the USA post a titanic increase of 141%. The head-scratching question here is: how did the US manage to do this amidst all the new capacities added inside China?

Competitive ethane feedstock advantage as well as the new capacities built in the US helped sellers undercut prices in export markets, particularly in China.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia lost its place as the traditional top supplier and ranked as the second for the first time since 2016. Saudi Arabia’s market share in China’s import PE market declined to 17.5% in 2023 from 19.6% that was observed in 2022. Although Saudi Arabia also uses ethane as a feedstock to produce ethylene and then PE, the installed capacity of the US is three times more than Saudi Arabia, according to ChemOrbis Production News Pro. When their export sizes are also analyzed, ChemOrbis Stats Wizard Pro also evidently shows that the US is a two-times bigger PE exporter.

UAE, South Korea both lost market share in China, Iran’s loss was stark

Meanwhile, regarding the top PE suppliers of China in 2023, the USA and Saudi Arabia were followed by the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, and Iran with market respective shares of 11.2%, 9.1%, and 9%. Imports from the UAE slid by 17% while South Korea fell by 7% on year.

Here, Iran needs a particular focus in terms of its PE exports to China since it also experienced a major downfall of 36% in 2023 compared to 2022. In 2022, Iran was the second biggest PE supplier of China with its market share of 14.3%. However, it came after the UAE, and South Korea in the fifth place in 2023, with a 5.3% decline in its market share in China’s import PE market.

Product-breakdown: HDPE imports slump, LLDPE imports soar

China’s cumulative HDPE imports in 2023 visibly decreased by nearly 13% from 2022 to stand at 5.1 million tons. Also, China’s HDPE imports have been steadily declining since 2020, when it hit the highest level ever recorded.

Saudi Arabia maintained its place as the top HDPE supplier, unlike in LLDPE, LDPE

Saudi Arabia remained the top HDPE supplier of China in 2023 with 960,192 tons, and 18.6% market share while the UAE also maintained its second position among the top five importers with its 17.8% share in the market. Nevertheless, they both lost around 3% of their market shares compared to 2022.

They were followed by the US, South Korea, and Iran. Russia lost its place among the major HDPE suppliers with a notable drop. The country became the tenth supplier in 2023, down from the fifth in 2022. The third biggest HDPE supplier of China in 2023 was unsurprisingly the US, moving up in the list from the sixth place in 2022. Also, the US raised its market share in China’s HDPE market by nearly 11% from 2022 to almost 15% in 2023.

LDPE imports slightly rose in 2023; Iran remained the top supplier albeit with a big loss in market share

In 2023, LDPE imports to China posted a small increase of nearly 2% from 2022, standing at 3 million tons. Iran remained the top LDPE supplier of China in 2023 with 24.5% market share, indicating a decrease around 7% compared to 2022.

Iran was followed by the US, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar. The US, once again, came to the forefront as it has been ramping up its LDPE imports to China since 2020, and managed to take Saudi Arabia’s second place in 2023. The US’s market share in China’s import LDPE market rose to around 18%, indicating an increase of around 6% from 2022.

US LLDPE dethrones Saudi Arabia and Singapore

LLDPE, unlike the other grades, witnessed a surprising increase of 15% in 2023 from 2022, with a cumulative volume of imports at 5.1 million tons. LLDPE imports to China, just like the other grades, had steadily moved south since 2020.

In 2023, the United States outpaced both Saudi Arabia and Singapore and became the major LLDPE suppliers of China in 2023. The overall LLDPE volume imported from the US stood at 1.2 million tons. The US raised its market share in China’s import LLDPE market to nearly 24% from 14% in the previous year. Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Thailand, and the UAE were the last year’s other biggest suppliers.

What will 2024 unfold?

China’s economy has been displaying a slower-than-expected performance, suggesting no promising demand growth. If not stay stable, imports should face a renewed drop this year, particularly when considering the coming and upcoming new capacities inside China.

Accordingly, prevailing PE suppliers across the globe will have to face an increasingly more competitive environment. Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Iran and the UAE will have to compete with aggressive exports from the US in 2024, bearing in mind the possibility of facing more loss in market share. They will need to focus on alternative destinations to divert their sales.

China, at the same time, will have to continue to curb operating rates at the existing plants to be able to absorb the new capacities in the midst of stalled growth in demand.


*ChemOrbis Stats Wizard Pro: 2022 is on the left, 2023 on the right. Right click the images and open in a new tab to view the full-sized snapshots.

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